The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 8

"Are they going to eat me?" Seth asked.

"No." In other circumstances, Edward might have found the question funny, given the unappetizing scent of the wolf's blood. "They want to see what you'll do when they attack the humans."

Seth's breath hitched and his pulse increased. "Don't leave me," he begged, his thoughts frantic. "Edward, you can't go!"

On the dais, Edward could see Aro smiling, Caius looking disgusted, and Demetri grinning widely. He felt helpless and angry, and they knew it. He turned back to Seth and gripped his shoulders.

"Please, understand. I'm already thirsty and I can’t take the chance." He didn't care that he was pleading; he had to get out of that room. If he smelled the blood, surrounded by enthusiastically-feeding vampires and tasted it through their senses ... They'd do all they could to tempt him. They'd done it to Carlisle, causing him to flee the castle many times in those early years. "Just - just stay in the corner. Don't look, don't listen, and especially, don't phase and try to fight." He looked Seth straight in the eyes. "These people are dead already; they just don't know it yet. You can't save them, do you understand?'

For long seconds, Seth looked at him, his expression concerned as well as frightened. Even in his distress, Edward was amazed to hear thoughts of compassion in the kid's mind - thoughts far more mature than they'd been two days ago. This growth spurt had aged more than his body, it seemed. "I hadn’t understood what you’d meant about it being difficult, but you're really scared, aren't you? That you'll kill someone."

The guilt Edward had experienced on the plane and in the cell was nothing compared to how he felt now, leaving the kid to face this nightmare alone. He couldn't hear any blame in Seth's mind; he was trying to persuade himself he'd survive this without Edward’s help. From the dais he heard a single chuckle. Hot fury shot through him and he looked up to see grins on several faces. He returned their gaze with a stony glare, knowing they were playing him again.

Could he do it? If he held his breath, kept his mind on the thoughts of the prey rather than their murderers, and concentrated on keeping Seth safe? Carlisle had always said the trick was keeping the right focus. Now Edward was going to get a crash course. If he failed, well, his soul was damned anyway.

"If you see me …" turn into one of these monsters " … slip, stop me. I'll do everything I can not to hurt you." Seth nodded, face pale and clammy. "Now, we stay in the corner and keep out of it." Edward had little faith this plan would work, but he was out of time.

Heidi was leading five humans down the corridor: four male and one female, all in their late teens. "This is a new themed attraction based on the legend of St. Marcus." She indicated paintings along the corridor walls. "These tell how he drove the vampires out of Volterra, making this the only city in the world where the streets are safe from vampire attack."

Edward heard a snort from one of the humans—Brett, he identified— an Australian who was unimpressed with this amateurish attempt at a tourist gig. "What a wank! We fly all the way overseas to observe some vampires and we get ripped off with this shonky work." He grinned down at the girl he held to his side. "Hey, Mols, tell the guide. You want to see vampires, don't you?"

Molly giggled. "Yeah, we got Buckley's of seeing them back home. Too bloody sunny."

"Don't worry, you'll see plenty of vampires soon." Heidi blinked away the remains of her blue contact lenses as they dissolved in her venom and turned to smile widely at the humans.

Brett fell back a step as he caught sight of her now-burgundy eyes, an inexplicable sweat breaking out down his spine. Edward heard the jolt in his mind as he took a heartbeat to recover his cool. "Oh, I read about those LCD contacts last year," he said condescendingly. "And you forgot your fangs. You don't scare me, mate."

Liar! Edward thought.

But I bet you do other things, Brett continued in his thoughts, letting his eyes wander up and down Heidi's body. I’ll bet she'd be up for a root, if I could get Mols out of the way. Seeing his look, Heidi returned his smirk.

Seth's quick ears had caught some of the voices. "They're close?"

"Just stay behind me, put your fingers in your ears, and close your eyes," Edward whispered back. He heard a low laugh from Felix.

Demetri shot a thought at him. I did suggest we call our little enterprise “Vulturey Tours” and pretend it was a typo, but Caius felt it lacked class. Pity. He drew his cloak aside as he sent Edward another thought. I dressed for dinner. His T-shirt showed two vultures in a tree; one bird was saying, "Patience, my ass, I'm gonna kill something." He let his cloak fall closed again and winked at Edward.

"... of course you can try out the coffins," Heidi said as the doors swung open and she ushered the humans into the chamber. They stood in a bunch just inside the door and looked around them, clearly puzzled and a little disappointed.

"Guests!" Aro called to them in ringing tones. "Welcome to Volterra, friends. Come, circulate among us. As you can see, we're all gathered here to feast on you."

Two of the youths grinned and snickered, nudging one another.

"You see that one?" said a lanky, surfer-blonde named Thomas, pointing at Aro. "With that cloak, he looks just like the Star Wars evil dude." In the voice of the character “Palapatine,” he croaked out, "You will join us, my young Skywalker..." Neither of them noticed Aro's glare.

"And him," someone else said, indicating Caius, "he looks just like Grindlewald”

Bloody tourists, Demetri thought at Edward. No manners.

"What about him, Sy?" a guy named Thomas asked, looking at Marcus. Edward could hear them running through characters in movies and TV series, each trying to come up with an apt nickname. Shut up! he willed them.

"Got it! He's the a dead ringer for Todd from Atlantis - y'know, the Wraith." They both cackled. "But he was, like, a realistic-looking space vampire; way more scary."

"This is bullshit," Brett muttered.

Next to him, his cousin Niall was looking at the chamber in a different way: evaluating, Edward realized. He'd seen Heidi's complexion up close and now looked with keen eyes from one vampire to the next.

Their faces are all too perfect, he thought. They don't look like real people. I've never seen anyone with faces like these. You might get one or two model-types, but not a crowd all together. It isn't makeup either, he told himself, and it's certainly not animatronics. I don't get the stuff with the contacts; their eyes are different shades of red. He looked across at Edward. He looks worried, and his eyes aren't red. Never seen anyone with yellow eyes before. But he still looks like a walking statue. What the hell are they? And that kid - here, he looked at Seth - he's the only one who looks real and he seems downright scared.

The connections suddenly formed in his mind like tumbling dominoes, and his survival instincts kicked in. Adrenaline flooded his system and his heart sped up. Every vampire in the room turned to look at him. "Oh, shit," he whispered, staring transfixed at the numerous pairs of crimson eyes. He pulled at Brett's sleeve with a suddenly-shaking hand. "We gotta go."

"Good idea," his cousin replied in a sneering tone before looking at Niall's face. "Hey, coz, they haven't spooked you, have they?" He laughed aloud. "Come on, man! They're just actors."

"They haven't done any acting."

"So, they should rehearse more." Brett laughed again. "You're such a tosser."

Edward heard a sudden resolution in Seth's mind and put his arm in front of him. "Seth, don't! You can't help them."

The humans looked over at him. "See," Brett said, "they're starting now." He sauntered forward, shaking Niall's hand off his arm.

"Victoria, my darling." Aro indicated in Brett's direction. Victorial smiled and inclined her head before stepping down from the dais.

"Nooo!" Seth protested, pushing past Edward's arm. He came to a temporary halt as Edward grabbed the shoulder of his hoodie, but then started forward again as the seam ripped. He tried to run, but Edward got a better hold and stopped him. "Get out of here!" Seth yelled, struggling. "They'll kill you!"

Niall dashed forward and tugged at Brett's arm, horror now showing on his face.

Brett was still laughing. "Overacting, much?" He waggled his hands in the air in mock terror. "Oooh, I'm so scared. Grow a pair, Niall, this is pathetic." He brushed his cousin's hand away and turned back to Victoria.

Seth shook. Edward heard his heart rate increase and the tenor of his thoughts change. "Don't, Seth!" he shouted into the kid's face, trying to distract him before it was too late. "Hold it together!"

Victoria giggled and took another step forward. Seth whirled, leaping. There was the now-familiar silent burst as he transformed in midair. He landed on all fours between the humans and the vampires, with Edward close at his side. For a few brief seconds Seth's growls were the only sounds filling the air.

"Woah, dude!" Simon said in total admiration. "That was fucking amazing!"

"How did they do that?" Molly said.

"I've seen better at Disneyland," Brett scoffed.

I like this guy, thought Demetri, maybe I'll just change him.

Victoria stared at Seth, mouth open, trying to work out whether he was the same wolf she'd seen in Forks. Edward grabbed a couple of handfuls of fur and tried to drag Seth away. The wolf stood his ground.

I won't let them harm the humans. Seth snarled, pulling his muzzle back to expose his long, sharp teeth. The fur on his neck bristled.

"You can't help them." Edward felt desperate. "Just, please, get over to the corner."

Behind him he heard, "Isn't he one of them? Why's he talking to the wolf-thing?"

"Must have forgotten his lines."

Seth briefly swung his head to give Edward a disbelieving glare. I have to try. I can't help it. Get out of my way, Edward.

Brett was circling Seth, cautiously glancing up at him. Doubt was creeping into his mind, but he wasn't about to freak out in front of the others.

Simon yelled to him, "Hey, Chewie, you great walking carpet, let him by!" Thomas subsided into belly-laughs.

Edward could hear Brett wishing he hadn't said that. He was closer to Victoria now and he thought the way she looked at him was - disconcerting. The way his cat looked at frogs. Sweat had broken out on his back again. Perhaps Niall ... no, he thought, they'll be using sub-sonics to creep us out. And those two idiots Thomas and Simon, are high-fiving one another behind me.

Seth gently shouldered him back. Brett had just enough time to think that the wolf felt real and warm and - alive - before everything descended into mayhem.

At a signal from Caius, Felix and Santiago somersaulted over Seth's head, aiming for Molly and Niall; Demetri ran toward Brett, but Victoria spun, siezed the vampire by the shoulder, and flung him at the wall. Demetri laughed and shrugged his cloak back into place. Victoria made a grab for Brett as Seth hurled himself at her, teeth bared.

He thumped his side into Brett, who fell over with a cry. Edward tried to get to Seth first, to stop Victoria getting in a blow or bite, but the wolf was fast. He sank his teeth into Victoria's forearm and shook her. Victoria screamed. Demetri gave Seth a solid punch to the ribs and registered a lightning burst in his hand. Seth yelped and let go. Edward sprang over Seth's back, tackling Demetri and sending him skidding into the wall for a second time.

Thomas shrieked, and Seth whirled to help him as Felix hoisted the teen into the air by his neck. Victoria ignored her mangled forearm and sprinted toward Brett, her lips drawn back over her teeth. Paralyzed in confusion, he didn't try to move and made no sound until her teeth sliced through his carotid. He gave a long, bubbling scream, struggling too late as she held him to the floor. Blood spurted past her cheeks.

Edward staggered, disoriented, as a torrent of impressions swamped his mind. There were scarlet eyes, stone-white faces, and glistening teeth stained with blood. Terror, disbelief, glimpses of loved ones; the sickening icy slicing of teeth through flesh; the almost scalding contrast of blood gushing across the cold; a sudden warm rush as bladder control was lost and then the acrid urine stench that accompanied it.

Wham! Edward cried out as a blow landed across his shoulders, splintering his shoulder blades and the bone in his upper right arm. It was swiftly followed by a series of powerful kicks behind his knees, and he fell to the floor.

"That was payback for the plane," Demetri said.

The damage to Edward's body repaired itself almost instantly. He sprang up high, momentarily hanging by his fingertips from the rough stones near the ceiling where he was able to survey the room. Chelsea and Afton moved toward Seth as he defended Simon and Thomas. One of the youths was screaming loudly, the other unmoving, tears pouring down his face. Caius was bent over Molly's struggling form; Niall was almost hidden by Sulpicia and Santiago. Over on the dais, Aro was flanked by Jane and Alec, watching calmly with a small smile.

Edward pushed off from the wall and landed in front of Seth. The humans were almost mindless in their terror now and their mental hysteria beat at him, weakening his concentration. Afton grinned and faded away like the Cheshire Cat in front of Edward's eyes. Disoriented and startled, Edward drew in a sharp breath.

The overpowering scent of sweet, throat-soothing nectar filled his nose. He clenched his fists as his venom started to flow and his focus shifted to the drumming of rapidly-beating hearts. He spun, moving toward where Victoria was stooped over Brett. All he could see was red; that life-giving color calling to him. He crouched, ready to spring and steal Victoria's prey.

With a sickening crunch, he was flung to the floor, four leaden weights on his thighs and shoulders, as a fetid stench abruptly pulled him back to reality. Seth had him flattened and was deliberately breathing into his face. Snap out of it, Edward! he ordered silently, and was away before Edward could reply.

Around him was laughter, and then a shadowy form threw itself across Edward's vision. There were cries of pain from both Afton and Seth, but then came the sound of snapping ribs accompanied by the hot scent of bruising flesh. Edward hurled himself across the floor, seizing Afton's head and pulling him away. The blow didn't seem to have slowed the wolf down; he was everywhere, leaping from one vampire to another, teeth snapping and slicing.

Edward dodged, punched, twisted, and threw, trying to ignore all else, keeping his eyes focused on only the unending series of attacking forms. All the while, the horror in the humans' minds assaulted him. They were beyond thought now, simply a mass of panicking screams that tore and bloodied their throats from the inside, even as the vampires' teeth closed in from the outside. From the vampires he heard curses from the bolts of pain whenever they came in contact with Seth, but it didn't deter them for long. His head rang and pounded with the bedlam.

Dimly, he realized someone was calling Seth's name.

What is it, Edward? I'm busy here. Even Seth's thoughts were panting.

Edward quickly glanced over to the wolf, but this left enough gap for Felix and Demetri, working together, to launch a joint assault on him. They ran straight at him from opposing directions, crushing him between them. He could feel fissures down his chest that leaked venom before swiftly closing. Felix got an arm round his neck and was pushing Edward's other arm up his back in a classic arm lock. Edward resisted, pressing the back of his wrist into the small of his back as hard as he could while he clawed at the arm round his neck.

Demetri smashed his hand down onto the side of Edward's right knee, shattering the bones and ripping his ligaments. He roared as pain shot through him, but with his uninjured leg he pushed off from the floor to flip over Felix's head while holding onto his forearm and dragging it behind his shoulders. He heard the popping of the shoulder joint and Felix's yell before an elbow sent him careering back.

Aro looked to where Victoria still knelt over Brett's feebly-squirming form and then over at Edward. He steepled his fingers, then parted them in a flourishing gesture.

All the vampires in Seth's vicinity moved away, creating a corridor that led straight to Victoria's back. Seth saw it instantly and leaped forward. Edward was at his side, his head still ringing from the mental bombardment, uncaring for the moment what Aro had planned. All he saw was that he was being given a chance at payback for her lies. He spared a quick glance at Aro who inclined his head, for once looking solemn; then they were on her.

Once again, Edward heard someone mentally calling to Seth and dimly wondered who was trying to distract him. The wolf ignored it as he sank his teeth into the nape of Victoria's neck and shook her in the way a puppy shakes an old slipper. For a moment she dangled from his jaws before she pulled down, tearing her shoulders but giving herself enough leverage to send her right leg backward, placing a jabbing blow with her heel into the center of Seth's chest. He gave a winded yelp and let go. As Victoria spun round to face him, the red of Brett's blood shockingly red against her white face and hands, Edward tackled her, and the force of his attack carried them across the chamber and into the far wall.

Now that he had the opportunity he'd lusted after, Edward wasn't going to waste it. He knew he was fast; he'd always been the fastest of his family, and now he was letting go of any pretense of being civilized. He hammered at her with his fists and bit every last inch of exposed flesh he could see, gouging out chunk after chunk and spitting them away before going in again.

He punched, kicked, cracked bones, and twisted limbs. Totally oblivious to the retaliatory damage Victoria was wreaking on him, he knew only that he would win. For every bite she took, he tore two slabs of muscle from her; for every blow she landed on him, he made three. He left no room for Seth to participate. Their venom poured from dozens of wounds as they fought on. The pistol-shot cracking of breaking bones and the screeching of tearing sinews and muscles rang deafeningly round the room. Their bodies, and the floor around them, became slick and slippery with the thick venom syrup, causing blows to skid across flesh, but Victoria had lost more than Edward and she was slowing. Then, she misjudged a feint and left her neck exposed. Edward stepped in and sank his teeth into her.

It was over.

He allowed Victoria's head to drop from his fingers and then looked up. The room was almost still. The teenagers' remaining screams were weak as, one by one, they fell silent, reflex muscle spasms the only sign that any of them still lived. The quiet drip, drip of venom from his fingertips was the only other sound. His shoulders slumped; he already felt weakened and knew his eyes had turned black with thirst. He needed to hunt, and very soon, to recoup the energy of his healing.

Seth was beside him, confused and panting, trying to keep his eyes on every vampire at once, ready for the next attack. You killed her. You killed her. His thoughts were chaotic, full of distress that the humans were beyond help; that he'd failed, and that he and Edward were totally outnumbered, both of them injured. The shrieks and screams from the humans filled his mind as he saw the attacks over and over. In the cacophony of his thoughts were images of Edward trying to protect him, images of home, of Sam. His ears rang with the sounds of screams, voices calling to him, the teenagers' faces and the hubbub of the last few minutes. Stronger than all these was the instinct to hurl himself at the vampires around him, and his muscles tensed, ready to respond.

Aro gestured to Felix, Demetri, Afton and Santiago, and they stepped forward and adopted hunting crouches before launching themselves at Edward.

Seth bolted and got in front of him, snarling and bristling. Demetri and Santiago took him on, kicking and punching but not biting. Seth was everywhere at once, twisting and leaping, snapping at arms and heads, sandy-furred death.

Edward tried to fight Felix and Afton. In the few seconds of the lull after he’d defeated Victoria, many of his wounds had closed, but he no longer had the strength for a sustained attack. From occasional glimpses of the battle next to him, it was clear that Seth was making his impact, but he was young, inexperienced, and outnumbered. Santiago gave a crushing blow to his head that left him stunned and tottering. He fell. They rained more blows down on him as he lay there.

Then all four joined in on Edward and he tumbled to the floor under their combined assault. Once again, the stone flags were coated in venom, almost all of it Edward's this time. His bones were broken and reformed time and again; joints twisted, and still the beating continued until he knew nothing but the constant battering.

When it stopped an eternity later, Edward could barely move, barely think. Everything seemed broken, and he felt as though white-hot knives had sliced through every part of him. He opened his eyes, but his right one registered only darkness.

Seth laid close-by, barely conscious, vaguely aware that Edward was near and taking a little comfort from that fact. From the corner of his vision, Edward saw Jane tuck Brett under her arm and carry him off to one side of the chamber, nodding at Alec to join her.

Purple smoke drifted over, but he couldn't turn his head to see its source, though he supposed it must be Victoria. In a detached way, he realized his thoughts were slow, plodding almost, constantly dissolving in his weakness and pain.

He had just enough strength to move his left arm; his right was almost detached. Carefully, gingerly, hissing through his teeth, he dragged himself the few inches across the slimy floor, just close enough to touch the wolf's fur. He couldn't see how badly hurt the kid was since there was plenty of blood matting what was visible to him. Seth must have some accelerated healing to last more than a split second against a single vampire, let alone two, so for him to be floored must mean serious injury. Edward knew that the guilt from this day would stay with him forever. All he could offer for the moment was kinship.

"Seth," he whispered, "I'm sorry I couldn't protect you."

Two golden-brown eyes half-opened.

Edward could see a vague image of himself in Seth's mind, but it was growing more indistinct by the second. He was whimpering and shivering. My mom...

"I'll tell her."

Thank ... friend.

Somewhere, and it seemed very far away, someone still seemed to be mentally calling his name, urgent and afraid, but that faded as Seth's eyes closed again and his mind drifted away.

Black fabric swished across Edward's view, lifted clear of the venom on the floor. "Yes, that was Victoria," Aro said, as though Edward had asked a question. "Had she taken my hand, she would have realized I knew she lied. Carlisle would never have behaved the way she described. I do not tolerate such stupidity in our kind." He crouched down to look into Edward's face. "And here we must part ways also, my young friend."

Edward opened his mouth, trying to form words, but could only manage a weak, "Why?"

Aro laughed softly. "Do you think I am so naive that I would have you join us? You are too dangerous; we cannot have you here, picking up our stray thoughts." With that, he allowed his mental barrier to melt away. You have been here only a few days and already you have learned too much. You saw Didyme when I destroyed her, did you not? I cannot have you be a party to such knowledge, nor force your loyalty. Chelsea's bindings will never quite take; you telepaths hear too many different minds and it breaks the conditioning. You all develop ideas to undermine us in the end, and have the wherewithal to learn exactly what you need to carry it out.

"No!" Edward's voice was no more than a croak. He tried to look up, to lift his hand to Aro's to assure him, but his arm was too heavy to move. Aro's eyes flicked momentarily to Seth. The kid was now fully unconscious and Edward could hear the usual soft rustling sound as he changed back into his human form.

"Please..."

Aro straightened and turned away, gesturing to someone outside Edward's field of vision.

Edward closed his eyes and only one person’s face came to mind. He would never see her again. Oh, Bella.

"Get rid of the filth," Aro said, and then everything went dark.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Jenny Bentley had worked as a personal shopper at Harrods for twenty-two years. She was well used to the eccentricities of the unfathomably wealthy, so the Cullen family's list of rules didn't seem odd to her. If they insisted that a different personal shopper be assigned for every visit, then so be it. To some it may have seemed excessive that any personal shoppers who had previously accompanied the family must not be in the store on that day, but to Harrods' staff this was not unusual. Nor was their insistence that no assistant must approach closer than three feet unless specifically invited or have any skin abrasions. The list went on.

To Jenny, Miss Cullen was a dream customer. She was polite and friendly, wanting to see all the store had to offer, and spent freely. Her companion, Mr. Hale, was quiet but affectionately attentive, although he often wandered away on his own errands. While Miss Cullen was in the Writing Room, he was examining gloves in the men's section.

Miss Cullen was choosing a new fountain pen as her father's Christmas present, chatting with her like an old friend, when she froze mid-word. Jenny recalled Mr. Hale's abrupt appearance at her side, a concerned frown on his face. Then Jenny experienced a whirling confusion followed by grief so intense it left her sobbing on the floor.

She found out later that she was by no means the only one struck down; many of her colleagues were sent home inconsolable over something they couldn't name. Indeed, almost everyone in Knightsbridge had felt something. “Mass hysteria,” the broadsheet newspapers called it. "Attack of the Dementors," screamed the gutter tabloids.

Whatever it was, it had seemed to come from outside of her, and afterward she could never rid herself of the notion that it had originated with Miss Cullen. She never told anyone what she thought; after all, a truly professional personal shopper never discloses details about her clients.

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